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Local businessman's custom creations reuse logs found at the bottom of the Cape Fear

By Amy Hotz
Staff Writer

Chris Metz runs his hand over smoothly varnished planks. Within the swirls of tight grain, he points out hues of beige, red, yellow, green, even blues and purples.

People who have worked with wood for years, he says, have to be convinced that it's just pine boards. They don't believe it. But then, there's a reason for that.

These boards once were pieces of the same log. Lanky North Carolina men with sinewy muscles chopped this pine tree down a hundred years ago or so. They used broad axes and two-man saws and endurance and time.

And as they floated their harvest down the Cape Fear River to make money at Wilmington lumber mills, this one got away. It sunk into the thick black mud. Protected there by worms and decay-inducing oxygen, the wood began soaking up river water.

And it stayed there until now. Finally, the process these lumbermen started generations before will be completed. Metz's 18-month-old business, Old Growth Riverwood, will mill it for wood floors, bar rails, counter tops, furniture, trim, any number of custom-made purposes - and sell it for a profit in Wilmington and elsewhere.

Metz does not take for granted what makes this wood special.

"You still sit back and look at it and think, 'Each log had hardship in each one. Alot of man hours, a lot of sweat equity,' " he said.

Then, gesturing toward sepia toned photos in his office of loggers in New Bern, he says, "You think about what that guy would think about what you're doing with his wood today. Although he sold it to a mill, there was still probably some emotional aspects in that, too. The drama of getting it here. How many splinters did he get? . . . To me it's really neat to bring it back and showcase what they did. And hopefully we're making the prior owners of this wood proud . . . It shouldn't be all about the monetary side of it."

To Metz and his customers, there are many more sides to this reclaimed river wood. Several architects come to him for the ecological benefits. Instead of cutting down living trees, Old Growth uses what's already there. In the process, it clears the river of snags. And, Metz says, the trough created in the mud once a log is removed is a good place for fish to spawn.

He does this methodically, however, so that he doesn't create a lot of muddy water which is bad for the fish to "breathe."

"We'll make the lowest impact that we can. We're trying to get someone from the Riverwatch to be a consultant with us right now . . . He can give me a better environmental grip on things," Metz said.

And then there are the colors. The Cape Fear River, in particular, Metz said, creates beautiful patinas. His theory is that this river's low levels of mercury and its brackish water undergo a chemical reaction with the sap to create an almost rainbow spectrum.

Metz has worked with wood all his life including jobs at International Paper, then at Cape Fear Riverwood and now at his own business. He says riverwood not only looks different from the stuff you buy at Lowe's or The Home Depot, it's denser, the grain is tighter and it's much more forgiving to work with. It breaks into chips instead of splinters.

The job is an obsession. There were days at Cape Fear Riverwood when it rained or the wind blew too hard to go out on the river and find wood. The other guys would go home. But Metz would head to the library and research where old lumber mills and cooperages used to be. He's learned the names of some lumbermen and discovered some techniques they used to float the wood in rafts to Wilmington.

Some pieces of wood have kept clues to those secrets. He's found hand-forged chains and thin wedges called "log dogs" still embedded in the logs. These were used to keep the rafts together in tight formation.

Other pieces of wood are stamped with the seal of King George III, proof that it was harvested while North Carolina was still a colony of the crown.

"You get to lay your hands on history every day," Metz said, smiling.

He's a wiry 42-year-old Virginian with dark brown hair, not the robust lumberman you'd expect to hoist trees from the river, or the bookworm-type you'd imagine studying history in the library. A family man and devout Christian, Metz's passion has spilled over into his home life.

If his wife needs a gift at the last minute, he'll whip up a little box, a business card holder or, for very special occasions, a hope chest. He gives large river wood crosses to churches.

His home is floored with wall-to-wall reclaimed wood, they have river wood chair rails and other odds and ends all over the house.

Some days, though, Metz has a hard time going home. He'll stay at the office until late at night working the wood or just hanging out among the boards.

"I come in here and I do not feel like this is work. I feel like there's a responsibility here to do the right thing. But it doesn't feel like work to come in here," he said.

Right now, Old Growth Riverwood is using piles of logs he bought from Wilmington Mine and Marine. But Metz's goal is to have a boat and a barge for his business by 2010. Then, he can use the permits given to him by the state to do what he loves most, complete a lumberman's journey.

Amy Hotz: 910-343-2099

amy.hotz@starnewsonline.com

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